Blowing up a bed using a tank is certainly a choice. The bed explodes in slow motion. First, we see the dirt raised from the ground behind the bed. Then, a ball of fire erupts, tossing pillows in the air and leaving behind a wooden carcass. It’s not an episode of Mythbusters; rather, it’s an Instagram video from the Liver King, who encourages his one million followers to do away with modern bedding because of the chemicals it contains.
In his last comedy album, Robin Williams said the definition of pornography was simple. “Erotic is using a feather; pornography is using the entire chicken.” Destroying a bed with a tank? It’s starting to sound like pornography.
We often yearn for simple answers to life’s pressing questions: what should I eat? how should I exercise? what dangers should I avoid? The Liver King—real name Brian Johnson, a muscly, meaty 44-year-old man with the bushy beard of a castaway—uses eye-catching, theatrical excess to hammer home his solution: ancestral living. The human body, he claims, is adapted to its distant past. Modernity is poisoning us. In order to thrive, we need to live like cavepeople. Expect him on The Joe Rogan Experience any day now.
There is a grain of truth to the Liver King’s lifestyle—exercising is good, very refined food products are often less good, and getting some fresh air is beneficial—but that grain gets lost in his impressive bowls of organ meat, bone marrow, and the titular liver, which he encourages his viewers to consume daily in order to find strength and happiness.
The meat of the matter
The Liver King’s precepts are boiled down to simple words: sleep, eat, move, shield, connect, cold, sun, fight, and bond. Each is represented by a primal-looking sigil, as if he travelled to Lascaux to find a graphic designer.
Our ancestors, he repeatedly tells us without ever specifying which era of our history he’s referring to, were very healthy and they lived long. We should thus turn to their wisdom if we want to be healthy.
It may sound like complete rubbish, because we have this idea that our ancestors, specifically hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic, all died young and were terribly unhealthy, but there is quite a bit of debate over this question. Their average life expectancy is easily dragged down by the fact that it was common for children of that era to die. But even if ancestral hunters who survived childhood used to live until about the age of 70, it would be a mistake to assume that our bodies adapted to their lifestyle and then stopped evolving. We have acquired genetic mutations since to help us deal with our changing diets, which include starches and the consumption of cow milk after childhood, although how much adaptation has occurred is still up for debate.
By modelling himself after his idea of a hunter-gatherer, the Liver King espouses an extreme version of the Paleo diet, a fad diet that was itself similar to Dr. Robert Atkins’ low-carbohydrate weight loss program. This diet suffers from a core assumption: that we know that all of our ancestors ate the same food. It lumps together populations that had highly varied intake of animal meat and it is based on incomplete knowledge we have of their eating habits. Moreover, there is accumulating evidence that high consumption of red meat predisposes to cancer, and the apparent absence of fruits and vegetables from the Liver King’s diet can create deficiencies in micronutrients, phytochemicals, and fibre. There is a reason why the Paleo diet is typically ranked as one of the worst diets by dietitians, whereas the more diverse Mediterranean diet stays at the top. Also, in terms of sustainability and affordability, the Paleo diet isn’t great. Meat is expensive.
But if you really believe that the only way to achieve Brian Johnson’s physique is to go all-in on real meat (because of his videos in which he squeezes the eggs from a giant fish into his mouth and shoots Beyond Meat patties with a shotgun), two observations. A recurring comment on his videos involves accusations of pharmaceutical assistance, with the funniest being a comment on a video showcasing the 500 acres of his ranch: “Where do you grow your steroids?” Second, there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan athletes. Consuming meat is not a prerequisite to be fast and strong.
The tenet behind the Liver King’s eating philosophy goes beyond a simple Paleo diet, though: he believes that eating an organ will strengthen the corresponding organ in his body, a concept he calls “like supports like.” Does your brain need a boost? Eat a cow’s brain! This is not true. Organs are made of tissues, themselves made of cells, and they are all broken down into their basic building blocks in our gut. There is no essence of pancreas that will revitalize our own pancreas when ingested. “Like supports like” isn’t all that different from homoeopathy’s “like cures like” motto. It’s magical thinking.
Feasting on all these organs, however, means consuming a lot of raw food. The Liver King cooks the occasional steak, but you can see him salting then chewing on a raw liver on Instagram. Raw meat can contain bacteria and parasites that can make you sick or even kill you. I don’t think there were many hospitals in the Stone Age.
De-liver us from modernity
Glorifying the past comes at the expense of the present. The Liver King warns of the dangers of electromagnetic frequencies, like cell phone signals and Wi-Fi, even though the weight of the evidence indicates they pose no threat to human health. Shirtless in the baking sun, Brian Johnson explains to the camera that his family doesn’t use sunscreen because nutrient-dense foods are sufficient, before using a machine gun to take down an army of sunscreen bottles. Food does not shield us from skin cancer. This is pure chemophobia, which he extends to fluoride, vaccines, mercury fillings, and plastics.
That bed he blew up with a tank? His worry was over those infamous hormone-disrupting chemicals and flame retardants. “There might be some flame retardants, or fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, or phthalates in the mattress that, when pumped into animals at a high dose, create havoc,” Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the director of our Office, told me. “But it is hard to imagine that they would pose a significant risk in bedding.” Certainly not a risk worth confronting with a 42-tonne war vehicle.
Armed with a degree in biochemistry, Brian Johnson boldly claims on one of his websites that 90% of Americans are deficient in magnesium and in vitamins A, D, and K. I don’t know where these sensational numbers come from. About half of all Americans ingest less magnesium than they should, although symptoms related to a magnesium deficiency are reported as being rare. Vitamin D status is a complicated topic. Most Americans get enough vitamin A, and vitamin K deficiency is very rare.
But if you are convinced that most Americans are “critically deficient” in many vitamins and minerals and you are a bit sniffy about hunting game, the Liver King offers no fewer than 29 Ancestral Supplements, from beef thyroid to beef eye to “his” and “her” organ mixtures. The content of each bottle is said to “support” this or that organ’s health, in keeping with Johnson’s philosophy and the legal requirement that none of these products are intended to “diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease.”
The flavour of the month on Instagram
In the realm of the Liver King, health is a personal choice. On this point, he is indistinguishable from most wellness influencers. In a video he states, “we can choose susceptibility to disease, allergies, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and low ambition” or we can choose to change and be healthy. Choice does play a role, yes: if I choose to consume processed meat at every meal, I expose myself to a higher risk of developing cancer. But health is decided by more than just personal responsibility. Socioeconomic status, genetic variants, and the choices of others have a direct influence on the physical and mental fitness Brian Johnson wants us to achieve. By excising these factors from the equation, he is blaming ill health on its victims. And that, unfortunately, plays well in the wellness space he inhabits.
I won’t lie: it is draining to watch our pop-cultural kitchen churn out health influencers by following the same recipe over and over again. The steps are simple and lucrative. Separate food groups into angels and demons. Pit the inherent goodness of Mother Nature against the toxicity of man-made materials. Exalt the merits of an ancient tradition, sadly forgotten but now rediscovered. Look the part. Make sure your phone’s camera is always pointed at you. Repeat your catchphrase. Importantly, sell your own line of supplements.
The next step is to progress from influencer to guru, a step which the Liver King has thankfully not completed yet. It involves becoming an expert at everything, developing unhealthy social dynamics, undermining trust in any other source of information, and a few other characteristics helpfully compiled by the hosts of the Decoding the Gurus podcast.
If watching the Liver King simulate a hunt by flipping a giant tire and using a sledgehammer motivates you to exercise more, that’s outstanding. Motivation can be hard to find these days, and exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug we have. But if the message you take to heart is that health can only be found by stripping your life of all traces of modernity—except, in the case of the Liver King, for the videography equipment constantly around him, the baseball cap he is rarely seen without, the laptop he uses, the ceiling fan in his bedroom, and the FV433 Abbott self-propelled artillery he seems to be enamoured with—you’ve fallen prey to another influencer whose philosophy is backed more by wishful thinking than science.
And that’s a raw deal.
-The Liver King is a social media influencer who claims that healthy living comes from eating mostly meat (including a lot of liver) and simulating hunts, because our bodies evolved for the Stone Age
-His eating habits resemble an extreme version of the Paleo diet, consistently ranked as one of the worst diets, because of its health risks and potential nutritional deficiencies
-The Liver King has many similarities to other health influencers: dividing food into good and bad categories, portraying health solely as an individual choice, and using stunts to garner attention